“He who does not reach the Great Wall is not a true man” – Mao Zedong
August 11th 2007, the day that according to Chairman Mao I became a true man, has been one of the best and most memorable days of my travelling life. Going to the Great Wall had been a long life dream as a traveller although I was not exactly sure about what to expect. I had seen those pictures of the very crowded Badaling part of the wall and that was not exactly was I was looking for, so I did not know if the way I had always imagined my visit to the Great Wall (remote and empty of people) was possible anywhere close to Beijing.
The hostel I was staying in offered two different trips to visit it: the already mentioned to Badaling and a hiking day starting at Jinsahnling and finishing at Simatai. Despite the second option being further away I decided to go for it as the hostel owner told me it was more remote and spectacular. But the great day started some hours before that, actually the previous night…
Some chinese friends had booked a karaoke room at a club called Tango, so after dinner we headed there. The place was located by the Temple of Earth Park and when we arrived we saw in a corner of the park lots of small colourful lights suspended in the air. When we went closer we realised that they were small light bulbs clipped to the lines of kites. As neither the kites nor the lines could be seen in the dark but just the blinking lights, it gave the impression of a giant invisible Christmas Tree. The kite owners guided them using something that looked like a big fishing reel that rested on their hips. We asked them how high the kites were flying and they replied that 800 metres (!!). With total disbelief we asked again and they replied the same thing, but I left it there as I did not want to go into aeronautic discussion with them. Maybe they gave us the figures in yuans and not in meters…
I thought that even 80 metres was too much but after that I read that some kites go up to 100-150 metres in festivals (not taking into account military ones, of course). Still, I bought a nice one nice to take back as a present for a friend without discussing any further.
The karaoke VIP room had a big red sofa for some 10 or 12 people and a big TV screen. In a coffee table in front of it rested a pile of fresh fruit and a few trays with shots. Right after we went in a staff member brought a bottle of Jack Daniels and started mixing it with Nestea in a big jag full of ice and lemons. I do not like whisky so I gave it a pass. One of the hosts insisted repeatedly and I finally decided to try it not to be rude towards him…and I ended up drinking around 10 glasses!! it was soooo good! I have not tried it since just in case it was the mystique of the moment what made it so good. At any time, if the amount of fruit or drink went down a little bit the same staff person came in to refill, he kept a constant eye peeking through a small window.
In any case I got quickly tired of cheesy chinese songs and, after destroying a couple of songs from the Beatless when I was pushed to sing, I rushed to the dance floor that had been calling my name from the very beginning. There was a Mexican DJ playing that night called Gabriel Sordo and he delivered an unforgettable session. I also enjoyed the atmosphere, healthier than in Europe (no people with sunglasses dancing like maniacs and no eyes popping out of the sockets). The original idea was to leave fairly early as next day was going to be a tough one but they had to drag me out around 4am and my feet aching of dancing non stop…
So back to the beginning of the story, the big day arrived and I was not in the best of the moods. I woke up at 6:30 after sleeping just over 2 hours and with a considerable hangover thanks to uncle Jack. We were a group of 6 persons and we left around 7 towards Jinshanling that is located some 125 Kms northwest of Beijing. The van ride lasted almost 4 hours, including one stop in a supermarket (the driver barely spoke english but he adviced “very hot, very drink”) and another stop as the driver overtook a car using the right lane and he got a fine.
It took quite some time to leave Beijing, even at that time of the day the traffic was busy. There were construction cranes everywhere, even more when we were in the outskirts of the city. They weren’t very nice: new buildings barely inhabited or under construction mixed with others crumbling down, probably waiting to be wiped. All seemed to be rushing to get ready for the soon to come 2008 Olympics. When we were closer to the destination the terrain became more hilly and also greener, mostly with bushes and low trees.
The entrance to the Great Wall in Jinshanling was so beautiful that all my tiredness and hangover were suddenly gone. The wall and the watchtowers around the ramp used to reach the top of the wall had been heavily rebuilt so they looked as they had originally been back in the 1570s under the Ming Dinasty when they were built. The area was fairly isolated, less touristic than I expected and there were not many food or souvenir stalls. Somehow the quietness being a Saturday morning in August surprised me in a good way.
We started walking East towards Simatai around 11am and by then it was already hot. The Great Wall gave me an adrenaline rush from the very moment I set my foot on it and I stopped often to take a 360 degrees look to admire the landscape. The wall meandered endlessly in both directions like a giant stone snake resting over the hills and valleys. The continuous stretch of wall was dotted with watchtowers and beacon towers of different sizes every few hundred meters. Despite its size and imposing presence the Great Wall felt light and agile. I had seen lots of pictures of it but being there was a completely different feeling, something really special.
The more we walked further from the entrance the more the wall was deteriorating and showing its real age and face: potholes, loose bricks and stones, some of the protective barriers crumbling, steps missing parts and shaking when stepping on them, cracks here and there…but the magnificence, charm and magic spell were all there giving a real feeling if how ancient, powerful and venerable it was. It felt we were walking not only distance but also back in time.
We walked in no rush, sometimes stopping at the towers, not only to savour the astonishing views (Jinshanling has some 67 watchtowers and 2 beacon towers), but also to rest and drink constantly. The landscape was rugged, with small mountain peaks scattered sticking out from a green carpet of pine trees and bushes despite being in the middle of the summer. We bumped into just half a dozen other people doing our same route till we reached Simatai area that it was more crowded. For most of the journey we almost had the wall entirely for us. In the watchtowers there were locals sending drinks, food and, sometimes, souvenirs. They are peasants families that take turns to make some extra cash. The kids selling drinks followed us running over the side of the walls wearing flip-flops, seemingly floating over it and smiling at us.
We had been told in advance that the hike was a hard one and not suited for everyone and they were quite right. Some parts of the wall were so steep that we climbing helping our way up with our hands more than just purely walking. Also we had to be careful not to step on a hole or avoid tripping in the crumbling steps when going down a steep part. And it was really hot. One of my stronger memories from that day is that I drank some 4 litres of liquid and I did not have to “go to the loo” even once, I sweated all of it, including the Jack Daniels from the previous night.
It took us around 3 hours to reach the top of the hill just before the bridge that leads to the valley were Simatai section is. The landscape from this point was simply superb. We paid 5 yuans to cross the suspension bridge and then we faced the famous 17 towers of Simatai with their impossible slopes. Simatai section was originally built between 550 and 557 BC, but heavily rebuilt under the Ming dynasty one thousand years later. For some specialists in the Great Wall Simatai is the most spectacular part of it.
The steepness from the river to the highest tower was something crazy, following the crest of the Yanshan mountain and demanding a good deal of effort on each step we took. We were going up patiently, turning around again and again with our jaw dropping at the views. It is just around 2 kms of linear distance but it took us an hour and a half to reach tower 14, the furthest point you can go. After that tower (called Cat’s Eyes Tower or Mao Yan Lou) it is forbidden to continue, with a signpost indicating it and two guards making sure you do not try. The wall gets very narrow (no more than half a meter or even less at some points) and with a 80-degree gradient in the so called Heavenly Ladder. Also it is seriously damaged so it is very dangerous to go past that point.
The most famous of all the Simatai towers is the one called Watching Beijing Tower, standing 986 meters and from where you can see Beijing’s lights on a clear night despite being 120 Km away. The bricks used to build this tower have stamped on them the date when they were made and the code of the army that made them.
In the amazing video below you can see a professional and very experienced guide crossing the Sky Bridge and descending the Heavenly Ladder. It is easy to realise that it is not for everyone.
Once I reached tower 14 and after sitting to enjoy the feeling of achievement and happiness, I was really tired, so we went down using the open air gondolas, a good chance to enjoy the superb views. The ride back home passed really quickly as I fell asleep the very same moment I sat in the van. Twelve and half unforgettable kilometres that I hope to repeat someday.
Here are some links to wonderful picture galleries and info about the Great Wall: